Thursday, September 20, 2012

Blissfully, Bohemian Berlin

Brandenburg Gate

Yea, I know what you are thinking.   Your blog is called "Scandinavian interlude" and it is more or less about   an American's life in Finland, but you keep on writing about other European countries these days.  We had some wonderful adventures in Europe last summer and then finally the we took this little weekend break away from the children to escape to Berlin, Germany.  I promise this is the last non Finland post for a while, at least until my wanderlust resurfaces again.  :)

Checkpoint Charlie

I have been to Germany a few times in the past, but essentially just a few touristy destinations.  As a post college graduate I had done Munich's Oktoberfest, I visited the solemn Holocaust memorial in Dachau and more recently ventured down to Stuttgart to visit a friend.  The family also did a Bavarian adventure to see the castle Neuschwanstein in Southern Germany that inspired Walt Disney to create his own magical land.  This weekend trip would be reserved for the post Soviet bloc eastern city of Berlin.  Berlin has quite a past history and more recently was divided into two distinct sides (East and West from 1961-1989).  West Berlin was part of West Germany and East Berlin was part of the Socialist Soviet bloc country of East Germany (German Democratic Republic or GDR).  It was hardly a democratic country back then if you know what I mean.  A daunting wall that was erected in 1961 that surrounded East Berlin and kept the East Berliners out of West Berlin.  It is so hard for me to comprehend how this happened to a city like Berlin.  Can you imagine a major city like New York or London being divided by a wall and one side was forbidden to visit the other?  Many of the people trying to flee the East side were shot near the wall by border guards.  We explored much of the cities historical roots during our trip.  We visited the GDR museum which outlined life on the East side and we also visited the Checkpoint Charlie station which featured a history museum based on people's attempts at escape from one side of the city to the other.  This piece of history was very fascinating and something that I was aware of but never had been able to get so close too.

Remaining section of the Wall

Berlin is not all WW2 and Soviet bloc cold war history though, it is an interesting city in many different ways.  The city offers a little bit of everything for visitors.  If you like shopping, it has a large district for that.  If you like going to the Zoo, it features two of them.  If you enjoy the opera or the Philharmonic, it has those.  If you prefer to see museums, the city has many wonderful ones.  Nightlife and art are also huge in Berlin.  The city has become one of the most bohemian and liberal cities in Europe.  One might make a bit of a comparison to Amsterdam in Holland, but perhaps on a larger scale minus the canals.  My wife and I decided after seeing many of the tourist spots on the first day to do an alternative tour the second day.  So, we did a guided walk known as the "Real Berlin tour".  This tour was combined with a German guide who took us to many alternative neighborhoods that features interesting tidbits, street art and magical courtyards.  There are so many different neighborhoods to explore that one might miss them if just checking out the main tourists areas.  This walk featured many stops in the bohemian Kreuzberg area of Berlin.  Here we saw most of the famous street art, a man living in a tree house in former "no man's land" between the East and West side and a small urban farm.  This district reminded me a bit of Berkeley or Haight St. in the San Francisco Bay Area.

Kreuzberg Street Arts

We only had 2 full days to explore Berlin and just scratched the surface, but I thought we achieved a nice understanding of the city and taste of what it offers.  Of course, since I am writing a blog about living in Finland, I must make a few comparisons.  It wouldn't be fair to compare Berlin to Helsinki, because it is massive in size by comparison to Helsinki.  Berlin has currently about 3.5 million people to Helsinki's 500 thousand.  Also, one must use the metro or other forms of public transportation to get around in Berlin while the center of Helsinki is quite compact and can be explored easily on foot.  I also noticed that prices in Berlin were a bit cheaper, especially in light of the fact that it is a capital city.   Food was definitely cheaper and we could get a beer for 2.50 euros or a glass of wine for 7 euros in a restaurant.  In Helsinki beers run about 6-7 euros in a bar and wine is easily 12 euros or more per glass.  Differences aside, they are both interesting cities in their own right.  I would however highly recommend a visit to Berlin and set aside at least 3 days minimum to explore.  Berlin is only a 1.5 hour flight from Helsinki.

Sunday, September 9, 2012

Food culture differences (Finland versus US)

A new American girl just started at my daughter's international school in Espoo.  Recently at school, my daughter was the last one in the cafeteria with the exception of the new girl.  Why had they stayed behind when everyone else was done eating and had left?  They both had trouble eating their food plates and when the teachers were not looking, they dumped their food in the garbage.  :) It seems that they are missing their mac n cheese, french fries, burritos and chicken nuggets.  Yup, the food staples of the American school child are definitely not found in Finland.  In Finland school cafeterias feature items that you might even find in an adult buffet.  Depending on the day, you might find salmon, potatoes, meatballs, stew and even fish soup.  It is "real food", not just the preservative laden food that you would find in US school cafeterias.  My wife and I think that this would be a good shift for her in order to adopt better habits, but she is really slow to change.  It is hard to break these habits and she still yearns for Kraft Macaroni and cheese any chance she gets.  There seems to be some kind of market for "American" food here in Finland, because there is a specialty shop that sells American goods and there is an "American" shelf at the local K market food chain.  I personally tend to stay away from that stuff, because I just don't really feel like spending 5 + euros for some Peanut Butter or Jello pudding.  I can live without my American items for now.  :)

Surprisingly enough there is also a noticeable difference in lunch culture of Finland versus what I was used to in the States.  Finland tends to favor large, heavy lunches and many of them tend to be "all you can eat" buffet style places.  Many of these buffets feature heavy meat stews, fish, potatoes, bread and butter, heavy pasta salads, etc.  It is pretty rare to just find basic food, a light sandwich or burrito kind of place.  Also, not sure if it is just my office or not, but almost everyone tends to go out for sit down lunches, definitely not an "eat at your desk" culture. In my previous job in California, I think only about 30% of the people went out for lunch.  The rest either grabbed something to go or brought their own lunches from home to eat at work.  I think part of this has to do with America's "rat race", go go go work culture, where the Finns actually take time to go to lunch.  I have already mentioned in earlier blog articles, about the differences in food varieties in Helsinki versus San Francisco so I will not go into too much detail here.  Finland is however making some strides in establishing more ethnic varieties of food as more as more immigrants have been coming here. See my earlier post "Work life in downtown Helsinki".

Finnish staples